Saturday, 16 May 2020

Patch Bee-eaters!!

Well it has been an exciting 24 hours in Budleigh Salterton! It all started yesterday with news of a great find by a local Exmouth birder with a group of 13 Bee-eaters (flocks of 6 and 7) in his garden at 10am for just 2 minutes before they flew off east. 
Most birders in the UK are very aware of how notorious the species is for never staying long and so often being seen by only the finder!
As a result, I wasn't very optimistic about seeing them, but as the east side of Exmouth is only 3 miles away, I felt compelled to jump on my bike and spend an hour checking suitable farmland and the Golf Course at Budleigh. However, it did not take long for a reality check when I realised just how much suitable Bee-eater habitat there was between Budleigh and Exmouth! I started to accept that the birds were probably long departed and I headed home at around 1.30pm.

Fast forward to 7pm that evening when I visited the beloved local patch on the Otter Estuary. My aim was to look for Spotted Flycatchers in an area where birds had successfully bred last year. Of course, Bee-eaters were still on my mind, though very much at the back of my mind as it was now 9 hours since the sighting in Exmouth. I cycled along the wooded lane above the River Otter and spent some time watching the Flycatcher trees. Whilst standing in the lane I thought I heard the distant "pprruk" call of a Bee-eater! It is a sound, like most birders, I am very familiar with but surely it was my mind playing tricks? Somehow, I concluded it must have been the noise of my bins against my jacket!! 

I headed round towards South Farm where I knew there were some "Bee-eater friendly" telegraph wires, just in case it was real! Then, as I cycled around the bend by the lone cottage I could clearly hear Bee-eaters calling without doubt!! I looked towards the nearest trees and there sitting at top of them was a stunning Bee-eater! I was then aware of at least 4 birds hawking for insects along the tree line and out over my head - What an incredible sight to behold on my patch!! I immediately rang the Mrs who I knew was setting off  for a run and her route clearly needed to divert this way! I then phoned Matt Knott, Doug Cullen and a few other locals with the exciting news and it was good to know people were on their way to share the experience. 

However, just as I could see Helen running down the road towards me, the birds vanished! Now, that was just cruel - Surely, the Mrs couldn't dip on this technicolour patch mega!!?
We quickly headed back along the wooded lane hoping we could re-find them. Luckily, after a nervous 250 metre walk, there they were hawking over a golden sunlit grass field. 
I passed the bins to Helen and the immediate "Wow" confirmed she was watching them! Incredibly, there now seemed to be more Bee-eaters than before and I counted at least 10 birds! In hindsight it seems to make sense there were in fact two small flocks and the first birds I found then joined these other birds to make the complete flock. 
The rest as they say is history! It was great that so many local people were able to enjoy views of this notoriously difficult bird to see in Devon. 

This morning (16th May) 13 Bee-eaters flew out from their roost at 06.40hrs on what was quite a chilly overcast morning. They were typically vocal and gained height on a number of occasions, heading south and east and then back and then eventually heading out SSW and were lost to view at 07.40hrs.

Ordinarily, I would have put this exciting bird news out far and wide, but with this very strange time with Covid-19 and the first weekend free from travel restrictions since lockdown, I felt it was right to simply keep the news local. Particularly as the birds had roosted and were therefore sure to attract more attention and from further afield.

I visited the patch again this evening and it almost seemed like yesterday was a dream! No Bee-eaters calling tonight, but the magic of yesterday will remain with me for a very long time!! Now time for the celebratory Cream Tea - cream first of course!

Amazingly, the Bee-eaters are thought to be the same flock of 13 birds that were seen in North Wales on the Lleyn Peninsula last week. Last seen on the 13th May! 
See Maps below.  

European Bee-eater facts for Devon:
Thanks to County Recorder Kev Rylands for the data

Previous largest flock size: 
12 birds in 1995. Brixham 12th May & Holsworthy 18th May
Previous twitchable birds staying long enough for people to see:
Although nearly annual in Devon, not many stay long enough for people to see.
Axmouth in 2014
Bideford 2004
Ottery St Mary Oct 1963
Then not until 1949 when 4 birds spent three weeks around Beer/Seaton during June!

European Bee-eater, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

European Bee-eaters, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

The trees where I first clapped eyes on the glorious colour of these amazing birds!

European Bee-eater, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

European Bee-eater, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

The trees where the whole flock relocated - I have since found out there were Bee hives behind the ridge!
European Bee-eaters, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

11 of the 13 Bee-eaters on Saturday morning before they departed!

Bee-eaters from Exmouth sighting to the patch - approx 3.5 miles East

Bee-eaters from Lleyn Peninsula to Exmouth - approx 165 miles SSE


  1. Patch magic! Such a great story Chris. 😄
    If I lived a lot closer I would have been tempted. It's 30 years since my last Bee-eater! Brilliant stuff. 👍🏻

  2. Thanks very much Gavin. Glad you enjoyed the story and hope to finally meet in the field one day soon. I always enjoy reading your blog, so keep it up. Mine tends to be short on words, so I am not sure what came over me this time!

  3. Fantastic account and great bit of relocating - well done Chris!

    1. Thanks Dom - Good to hear you enjoyed the account and hope our paths cross again soon!

  4. One of those special moments all birders live for and dream of - great-stuff Chris!

  5. Thanks Mike - Glad you enjoyed the account!